Igniting Workplace Enthusiasm

"Management “Smoke and Mirrors” in Japan"

February 15, 2012 02:29
 "I don’t understand!".
Well in Nippon, particularly, what a pandora’s box or treasure trove that statement is, depending on your point of view. Employees who respond in this way may have a number of subterranean issues bubbling away. As managers, our ability to plumb the depths of what they are saying is integral for success.
Here are 5 hidden meanings behind that "I don’t understand" response. Gauging which one applies is the combined IQ and EQ test for managers. Here are few hints on passing the test and getting your just reward – keeping your job!
1 – They don’t know what to do
They may genuinely not understand the task content or have enough experience to execute what you require of them. They may not want to "fess up" to their lack of ability, because they fear the consequences.
2 – They don’t know how to do it
Funnily enough common sense is not so common it would appear. What is obvious to a seasoned, experienced manager may be "Swahili" to their staff. Logic works in mysterious ways, especially here in Japan, so the way forward can be unclear.
3 – Not believing they can do it
This is closely linked to the "Big Black Book of Failure". This infamous tome is usually squirrelled
away in the bowels of the HR Department and it carefully captures and records everyone’s errors, mistakes, crimes and disasters. Therefore, a certain inspired logic informs it is better to do nothing, than to make a mistake. Fear of falling short of expectations or performance minimums is re-branded as "I don’t understand".
4 – Not knowing why they should do it
This has two variants. One is why should "I" be doing this? In other words, in my highly refined and defined world view, my guidebook of Big Black Book of Failure avoidance says only do precisely what is in my job description and avoid straying into exotic areas of interest to my manager. The second variant is more bold. It is the actual idea that this task or project has dubious, shallow or irrelevant value, so why do it at all.
5 – Not wanting to do it
Ah, we have arrived at last. They know what happens to "nails that stick out" and they know that challenging your whacky ideas is a path to pain. There is "no way" I am going to do this, but I will snow you and just say "I don’t understand".
So facing that sea of inscrutable staff faces, all certified masters of silence and obfuscation, how do we work out what is the problem.
Some gentle probing will ascertain whether they don’t know what to do. For example, "Have you ever done this task before?" will establish whether you are facing blank, terrified total ignorance or not. This usually covers off Hidden Responses 1 & 2.
If the answer is "No", the boss penchant for muscling up to the bar and displaying vast knowledge, capability, and experience should be avoided, unless you want to be doing their job as well as your own, with no reduction in headcount and no increase in your own remuneration.
If the answer is "Yes", we move on to see if Number 3 - self doubt - is the issue. "Is there anything about this task this time which you think is going be difficult (code word for "impossible" when rendered back into Japanese as "muzukashii"). If the answer comes back as a "No" or lists concerns that don’t seem insurmountable, then we need to see if Number 4 - the "why" - is the issue.
Here some background on why you chose them for this task could be helpful. "I chose you for this task because I know I can rely on you, even though you are so busy with other work. The reason why this project is important to me is ….’ A "trial close" at this point is useful. "Are you happy to do this task?". If they say "Yes", we are off to the races, if it is a "No" then we are getting down to it at last.
Their answer about why they are not happy will tell you all you need to know about why your idea won’t work in Japan. Always useful to get that type of feedback - just do your best to not nuke your staff member at this point. A studied pause, then "Oh, good point. Let’s get a few of the team together and see if it is possible to work our way through these barriers" works well.
Good luck!
Dr. Greg Story
Dale Carnegie Training has been helping companies manage "I don’t understand" for the last 100 years.
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